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‘Kimchi Wars’ and East Asia’s Complicated, Post-Colonial Nationalism

In recent years, kimchi—a spicy, fermented cabbage dish ubiquitous in Korea—has found its way into home kitchens and chain restaurants around the world. Yet, even as South Korean kimchi exports reach an all-time high, the dish marks a low point in China-South Korea relations, with the two countries fighting over who invented kimchi. Cultural ministries and mass media platforms in Korea and China regularly argue about international standards for kimchi-making, leading their respective social media users to trade blows via Naver or Weibo. These so-called “kimchi wars” have bubbled over into the economic sphere, with Chinese import restrictions and mistrust among Korean consumers leading to drops in trade between the two countries. Interestingly, Japan and Korea were embroiled in a similar conflict during the late 1990s. 

It may be tempting to ascribe the most recent kimchi wars to a simple mistranslation by the International Organization for Standardization, who conflated kimchi with pao cai (a different pickled vegetable dish from China). Yet, there exists objective evidence that kimchi, at least as we know it today, originated in Korea. In addition, a mere mistranslation does not explain the Japan-Korea feud in the 1990s. One could also describe cultural disputes like the kimchi wars as an offshoot of modern economic tensions; after all, Japan, South Korea, and China are generally well-developed and have stable institutions. But economic development cannot compensate for the full extent of East Asia’s historical legacies.

Rather than a translation or trade dispute, the kimchi wars are grounded in the modern national identities of China, Japan, and South Korea, each of whom reinvented their history and culture under a colonial system unique to their region. More than a food fight in bad taste, the kimchi wars reveal how postcolonial identities and power dynamics continue to complicate political affairs in East Asia. 

East Asian imperial dynamics have their roots in the 1850s, as Western powers like the United States and United Kingdom forced China, Korea, and Japan to adopt the West’s market-capitalist system, stripping China of its hegemony over mainland-Asian politics including Korea’s. Meanwhile, Japan—more distant from continental issues and inspired by the Western model—became an imperial power. From the mid-1900s until the end of World War II, Japan engaged in European-style imperialism across the Asia-Pacific region, exploiting the resources of Korea and parts of China, such as Manchuria, all the while stripping their people of political and cultural legitimacy. Vestiges of Japan’s imperial pursuits still affect the economies of its former colonies and inspire Chinese and Korean resentment towards Japan.

With World War II weakening the imperial power of both Japan and the West, Chinese and Korean people sought to forge new national identities—distinct from that of their colonizers—in what is now known as their “postcolonial moment.” China focused on regaining its strength, intending to reclaim hegemony over Asia from the West; like many post-colonial nations, it turned to communism to push back against the inequalities in Western-style capitalist systems. Koreans also sympathized with the idea of defending the homeland against foreign aggressors, but the Cold War’s division of the Korean peninsula led to North and South Korea adopting distinct identities. To justify capitalism in a postcolonial state, the South Korean government built its national identity around defending Korean culture from outside threats, whether they be communist (China) or colonial (Japan). 

As a former imperial power, Japan did not have a postcolonial moment like Korea or China, but its national identity was nonetheless influenced by colonial and Cold War dynamics. Hoping to restore economic and political ties with the capitalist West, Japan built its postwar identity around international respectability, leading Japan to appeal to Western sensibilities while brushing over its own geographic and historical context (especially its past as a colonial power).

Each of these complex national identities inform East Asia’s various claims and conflicts over kimchi. Under China’s perennial quest to reassert its national identity and strength, Chinese leaders claim kimchi (and many other cultures, inventions, and territories) as their own. Meanwhile, after the 1988 Seoul Olympics exposed many Westerners to kimchi, Japan’s desire to be politically and culturally appealing to the West motivated its 1990s push to own and promote the dish. Finally, South Korea views kimchi as central to its cultural (and therefore political) heritage; any foreign claim on kimchi is seen as an attack on the Korean nation itself, fueling Korea’s vehement responses to China and Japan. 

Beyond kimchi, each nation’s narrative pits itself against the other two powers, albeit unevenly and for different reasons. And the older leaders of these nations, who lived immediately after the colonial period, often link national policy with this history. As a result, past conflicts between the three countries remain open wounds in modern domestic or international policy. Take the issue of “comfort women,” World War II-era Japanese sex slaves from Korea and China. Japan refuses to fully acknowledge its responsibility in recruiting those women, even starting international diplomatic rows over memorials for “comfort women.” This refusal remains a major sticking point in relations between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. Such disputes over historical injustices during the colonial period invariably seep into present diplomatic conflicts across East Asia. The effect of postcolonial identity on policy extends from Taiwan’s entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and territorial disputes in the Pacific to cultural conflicts and import restrictions like those of the “kimchi wars.” 

Nevertheless, sweeping demographic changes carry the potential to alter these countries’ sense of identity. While Asians are getting older on average, younger generations—those without living memories of colonialism or the Cold War—are starting to exercise their influence in politics and culture. A multitude of factors, including globalization, an expanded middle class, and time, contribute to an altered sense of nationalism among youth—maybe stronger or more apathetic, but certainly different from their elders. 

This demographic and ideological shift presents both opportunities and challenges in East Asian governance, cooperation, and diplomacy—and, of course, kimchi. For instance, Asian youth increasingly favor democratic governance, evidenced by the rise of the #MilkTeaAlliance, a movement of pro-democracy netizens, in Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, youth in countries like South Korea increasingly disagree with their elders on what that governance should look like, with many criticizing the rampant inequality in Korea’s capitalist system. As memories of imperial Japan grow more distant with time, younger Koreans are also more likely to take a hardline stance on China. Meanwhile, many young Chinese—molded by China’s modern identity—are even more nationalist than their elders.  Both shifts add fuel to the fire ignited by social media, as Korean and Chinese youth battle over the origins of kimchi.

It remains to be seen how leaders in East Asia and around the world will approach these challenges. Yet, cultural spats like the kimchi wars continue to require more attention, lest the underlying national identities ferment into something far more bitter.

Original illustration by Joanne Han